I was sitting in the Café des Poseurs the other day, drinking a skinny soy latte and pondering the nature of existence, when I suddenly realised why things go so terribly wrong in our lives. It’s nothing to do with us; it’s all because of heavy negative trips our parents laid on us when we were young. Do these expressions ring any bells for you (or Is it just me?}….. – “We’re not made of money, you know”, “You’ll poke your eye out with that stick!”, “Don’t expect too much and you won’t be disappointed.”
This stuff could shape your whole outlook on life. Heavy Negative Trips, I call them. We all get subtle messages from our parents about life and how it should be lived, don’t we? Some of us get predominantly positive messages, while the less fortunate among us don’t; we get HNTs.
There are strong recurring patterns which characterize HNTs: they’re part of a whole folk vernacular, repeated ad nauseam – a highly specialised form of negative affirmation which thrives on the power of repetition. Things that get repeated quickly become acceptable, and before long acquire the status of self-evident truth. These expressions get passed down through the generations; your parents got theirs from their own parents. It’s our parents they’re coming from, we naturally think – so obviously they must be right. Our parents are always right, aren’t they? As they keep reminding us, “Your mother knows best/ It’s for your own good/ Don’t say I didn’t warn you”.
Classic HNTs fall into a range of favourite categories. Parental authority is a popular theme, “The answer is no/ How many times do I have to tell you?/ You never listen to me/ In one ear, out the other. Alongside these are the frighteners, ”Stop doing that, it’ll make you go blind/ Put that down, you don’t know where it’s been!”/ just wait till your father gets home!”
Danger provides endless justification for HNTs, “This activity is dangerous/ that activity is dangerous/ life is extremely dangerous.” That’s the message – just assume that everything is just too dangerous. “You’ll cut your finger/ you’ll break your neck/ you’ll fall off that ladder/ don’t come running to me if you break your neck on that bicycle!” Tragedy lurks around every corner; something really terrible about to happen, at any moment. There’s also the fact that some adults just can’t cope with their children’s unstoppable energy, ceaseless curiosity and appetite for excitement: “Stop running round, you’re wearing me out!”
The innate difficulty of life is also popular source material. “Life Is not a bed of roses/ Money doesn’t grow on trees/ There are no free lunches/ Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched/ You don’t know how lucky you are…” etc etc etc. Life, in this subtext, is not actually there to be enjoyed – and each ethnic tradition adds its own particular variation of pessimistic cultural baggage: Protestant puritanism, Catholic guilt, Jewish angst, Buddhist suffering – you name it. Of course, these messages are mostly unconscious. Later in life you’ll have a hell of a time disentangling the good intentions from the rest; it’s the perfect seedbed for a nice crop of future neuroses.
My personal favourite category is those blatantly self-fulfilling parental prophecies: “I said this would happen didn’t I/ There’ll be tears before bed-time/You see, I knew you’d fall off that ladder!” Furthermore: “We’re only doing this because we love you”. And (unconvincingly while lovingly administering punishment), “this is going to hurt me more than it hurts you!”
But of course they really do love us; they really do mean well. They really are doing their best – it’s just that they’ve a funny way of showing it. And the fact is that we’ve probably driven them to it – we’ve worn them down and they’re probably at their wit’s end, thanks to how naughty and wild and just plain horrible we’ve been.
But then it occurred to me, as I sat with my faux lattechino – growing up, I swore I’d never treat my children that way. But now I’m a parent I probably do much the same with my children, “Get out from under my feet/ I’m sick and tired of telling you/ Why, when we were young..” I imagine I’m not alone.
So what can be done, beyond getting a lot of expensive therapy? Well, maybe I can be a bit more conscious about the whole thing, about the things I’m worried about, and how I’m saying what I want to say – maybe find a more positive and optimistic way of putting the messages across, “Take care how you ride your bike/Hold onto that ladder/ Let’s make the most of the money we have”. Oh yes, and “Let’s have fun and let’s enjoy life!”
I’m going to try, anyway.